RICHMOND, Va. – A middle-schooler from Fairfax and a high school sophomore from Patrick County are the first place winners of the Virginia War Memorial’s 2021 Veterans Day Student Essay Contest.
Senator Tim Kaine and Virginia First Lady Pamela Northam were among the dignitaries who acknowledged the accomplishments of the essayists during the 65th Annual Commonwealth Veterans Day Ceremony Nov. 11 at the VWM in Richmond.
Joseph Moreno, a 6th grader at The Basilica School of Saint Mary in Fairfax, saluted his parents as he wrote about the essay topic of “An American who served in the military following the (9/11 terrorist attacks) who inspires me.” His father is still serving as a Judge Advocate General Corps officer in the Army Reserve. His mother enlisted at age 17 as a motor transport operator and deployed to Iraq with her Reserve unit for a year following 9/11.
“My dad inspires me with his hard work and service to our country,” Moreno wrote. “(He) is a … lawyer and a cancer survivor. In the Army (he) gives advice to Soldiers and commanders about things like the use of weapons, the treatment of prisoners and how to be sure the Army is obeying the law. My dad joined the military in April 2001 and his first assignment was … in New York City. … (The attack) that took down the World Trade Center was actually just a few miles away from where he was working.”
He went on to highlight his father’s subsequent deployments to Germany, Iraq and Africa. The recognition he has received for his service includes the Bronze Star Medal.
“After September 11, my mom deployed to Iraq (Ballad Air Base, 2004) and had to leave college for a year,” read another portion of Moreno’s essay. “She (drove) … trucks all around … Iraq and Kuwait. She was constantly on the road driving … for a day or two or sometimes 2-to-3 weeks. (Sometimes she had to) sleep on top of the truck … and she was constantly in danger of getting injured, but she risked her life to help the people of Iraq. My mom earned the Combat Action Badge, which was created in 2005 for Soldiers who served in combat after September 11.”
Summing up his thoughts, Moreno noted that his parent’s example has him considering a future of military service.
“From their time in the Army, my parents have taught me about military values like courage, honesty, integrity, and protecting your fellow brothers and sisters,” Moreno wrote. “Every day, Soldiers are putting their lives in danger to protect others. … It makes you brave and part of something more than yourself. I hope that when kids hear about my parents and grow up they will consider going into any of the armed forces to serve America.”
The other winner – Maria Turner, a 10th grader at Patrick County High School in Stuart – wrote about Cpl. Jonathan Bowling, a fallen Marine from her community. After graduating from the same high school in 2000, he joined the Reserves and subsequently became an officer with the Martinsville Police Department after earning a degree in criminal justice from Patrick Henry Community College. He also worked as a volunteer firefighter. In August 2004, his unit deployed to Iraq.
“On Jan. 26 at about three o’clock in the morning, his convoy was hit by a rocket grenade attack,” Turner wrote. “Jonathan Bowling died from the injuries (he) sustained. (His) sacrifice had a significant impact on our small county and the individuals who reside there. He left behind a clear example of generosity, courage and kindness – a message and reminder of positivity and sacrifice, and a wide legacy … that continues today.”
After news of his death, nearly 5,000 locals came to pay respects to his family, she continued. The funeral home did not have enough room for the visitors, so they moved the coffin to the auditorium of Patrick County High School where he had graduated from just five years earlier. The following day, many local businesses were not open, and people lined the streets as the hearse passed by.
“Jonathan Bowling, whether he was serving in the military or simply being a helping hand, was the epitome of a good person,” Turner summarized later in her essay. “When (he) left for Iraq, he knew it was a possibility he wouldn’t be returning. (He) he had written a letter detailing instructions for the distribution of his possessions and his funeral. The end of the letter was a message of love for his family, reading in part, ‘I love you both very much, and just know that I am at peace. So, try not to cry, and look forward to the future.’ The last thing Jonathan Bowling left … in the midst of his death was a letter not of sadness or mourning, but of optimism and peace – possibly the best gift he could leave for his grieving family.”
The scholarship fund created in Bowling’s memory continues to help students of Patrick County, particularly those with an interest in public service. Turner called it a great tribute to Bowling’s memory and a good way to demonstrate how much he loved his community. Cpl. Jonathan Bowling, she said, was a generous, hard-working, honorable, and kind military member, neighbor, friend, son and brother.
Full versions of the winning essays are available on the Virginia War Memorial Foundation website, vawarmemorial.org/learn/contests-scholarships/essay.
More than 80 Virginia students submitted entries to the contest. For their selection as the overall winners, Moreno and Turner each received a $250 gift card, and their teachers will get $100 gift cards to purchase classroom and educational supplies.
Dr. Clay Mountcastle, VWM director, expressed pride in the program and the winners and runners up. “Education and preserving history for future generations are tenets of our mission,” he said. “These students show us, with their inspiring words, just how important that mission can be.”